The Gurugu Pledge: Challenging the traditional translation model

From student to eminent scholar, all those who have an interest in the theory andrew-areoff-462185of translation will have been confronted with the difficulties in conceptualising the source text-target text relationship. Jeremy Munday in his Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Approaches describes this relationship as one of ‘change’ where an original written text (source text) is rendered in another written text (target text). Termed by Roman Jakobson, the Russian-American linguist and literary theorist, as interlingual translation (that is, translation between two languages) in the late 1950s, the untrained eye might accept this definition as given. Moreover, one might even propose that both texts are ‘equivalent’ in some way, shape or form. Most of us who while away the hours in bookshops looking for our next purchase would not question that any book subtly adorned with the phrase “translated by” is not an equivalent version of an original published elsewhere.

Admittedly, here we are referring to published literary translation and not the myriad of other situations in which translation can occur. Nonetheless, those of us who are experienced in the field of translation know that this traditional definition of translation is not watertight and that this basic idea of ‘change’ or ‘transfer’ from one language to another, from one text to another is not always the case. Indeed, in the published literature scene, would a translation be a translation if the original version did not exist in the public domain? Can we afford it the status of ‘an original’? I think that the answer to these questions is dependent on your point of view. Nonetheless, the existence of a translation minus its significant Self does lead us to question how the implications of this unconventional relationship alter the roles and visibility of the work, author and translator in a postcolonial setting.


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The Gurugu Pledge, a collection of stories concerning the immigration crisis in North Africa from the point of view of the immigrants themselves, is a case in point that challenges the traditional assumptions surrounding translation. Written in Spanish by Juan Tomas Laurel Avila, a vibrant and exuberant writer from Equatorial-Guinea living in exile in Barcelona, this work has only been published as a translation in English. The ‘source text’ in its unpublished form exists a collection of typed manuscripts, rudimentarily bound together adorned with the occasional handwritten note. I was lucky meet Laurel Avila when he was invited to speak at the ‘Out of Africa Symposium’ at University College Cork in September 2017 and performed a parallel reading of his work in Cork Central Library. The ‘target text’ translated by Jethro Soutar, a highly successful translator of postcolonial Spanish and Portuguese literature, is a paradigmatic example of this translator’s innate ability to embody the voices of those that are not our own.


Intrigued to explore in more depth the reasons why this text does not exist in the public domain in its original form, how this relationship tackles the traditional assumptions of translation as well as the role of both the author and translator as well as the concept of equivalence, I interviewed both Avila Laurel and Soutar to explore how practice challenges our theoretical assumptions.

Q: Having read a little about the professional relationship that you created before beginning the translation of ‘By the Night the Mountain Burns’, do you think that you both adopted a similar approach to the translation of The Gurugu Pledge; an approach that required “la encarnación de una voz que no es la vuestra”? [the incarnation of a voice that is not your own]
Juan Tomás: La aventura conjunta empezó por el interés de Jehtro, y se hizo realidad por la aceptación que Another Stories hizo del producto que él les ofreció. Y como debes saber que la editorial somete los libros a un comité de lectura, podemos acabar diciendo que al final el primer libro tenía calidad. Supongo que el proceso con el Juramento de Gurugú fue similar, así que podríamos decir que ha habido una confluencia positiva para llegar a este final, a dos finales con los resultados ya conocidos. Creo que el libro tiene un fondo social que no se puede dejar de ver, así que, se podría decir que tanto el que escribe como el que traduce tienen, en mayor o menor medida, cierta sensibilidad por el tema. Esto lo digo por lo de la parte que has subrayado entre comillas. Jethro Soutar: Yes and no. I took the same approach, but this time it was a matter of embodying voices that were not my own. BNTMB had one very strong narrative voice, but TGP is concerned with an array of different voices. They tell each other stories around the campfire about where they’ve come from, but without specifying where they’re from, even though most people know where they are from anyway because of mannerisms and dialects. These people are supposed to be speaking English (not Spanish) so I had to give them voices that sounded authentic, that reflected their personalities and revealed, to those in the know, where they might be from. So, I asked Juan Tomás about the different people in the camp and where he’d imagined them coming from and then I read lots of English-language African books from those places, and pan-African collections like Africa 39, and took ticks and quirks from here and there and played around with them until the characters found their voices.
Q: For you, what genre does the Gurugu Pledge belong to? Does the book have a specific purpose?
JT: Para mí toda realidad puede ser novelada, así que si a alguien le incomoda llamarla novela a secas, puede añadir que es una novela sobre inmigración, o sobre refugiados. Es importante decir lo primero porque ningún libro se juzgaría simplemente por su temática, sino por su calidad. Es decir, si nadie ha escrito todavía una novela sobre la disección de un manatí que nació sordo, la primera no sería muy buena simplemente por ser la única, sino por acomodarse a los elementos por los que se da por bueno un libro. Una novela no tiene un propósito, hasta que causa un impacto. Pero no nos movemos siempre por impulsos reconocibles o contundentes, además de que un escritor puede escribir sin ningún propósito. Pero es un tema concreto, así que el propósito, y pese a lo anterior, sería focalizarse en un tema que creo que debe ser de interés. Suelo decir, además, que los temas me eligen, en vez de que sea al revés. JS: It’s a novel, it’s fiction, but other than that… I’ve never read anything quite like it and as a reader I like being surprised. It has its own energy and logic and that’s what makes it so compelling, but yes, there’s perhaps more to it than that: there’s a certain madness, a certain ‘the-usual-rules-don’t-apply’, which reflects the circumstances of life on Gurugu.
Q: Can you summarise the reasons as to why the original version has not be published in Spanish?
JT: No conozco todas las razones, pero podría señalar dos. No se presta mucha atención a los negros, y sus temas en España. No hay casi negros en puestos de relevancia en España, y esto no creo que sea casualidad. Primero soy un escritor negro, y el tema que aborda la novela no debería gustar a los que deciden las cosas en España. Creo que sería una razón suficiente.
Q: How do you create “polyphonic pleasure”? The translation of The Gurugu Pledge has been described as “plain”, “not stylish” but “full of force” and “breadth of vision”. These are opposing points of view. How would you describe the style of this book?
JS: The ‘polyphonic pleasure’ I suppose comes from what I mentioned above, bringing all these different voices to the table, or the campfire. But if I scored the English here, Juan Tomás was the maestro, the conductor, he had the voices clashing and interrupting one another, but singing if given half a chance. The polyphonic quote comes from a Guardian review which was very good because it totally got what we were doing, and to return to your genre question, that review said the book read like dystopian fiction at times… But back to this question, I took plain and not stylish to mean that there isn’t an imposing narrative voice, it’s more a question of episodic moments of force and vision. But different reviewers and readers will draw different conclusions.
Q: What are the challenges associated with the translation of a book that does not exist in a previously published formed?
JS: You can call them challenges or opportunities. If it hasn’t previously been published it hasn’t previously been edited, and all raw manuscripts need a little work. The publisher (Stefan Tobler) speaks okay Spanish and Juan Tomás speaks okay English, but neither have the fluidity to edit between the two, so I was entrusted to co-edit as well as translate. Entrusted because it did require a good deal of trust on Juan Tomás’ part, for no matter how much I explained our thinking in Spanish, ultimately it did still often involve a leap of faith from him. But the three of us had earned each other’s respect with BNTMB and that stood us in good stead. It was an extra challenge for me as a translator, but it was a good opportunity too in the sense that a lot of the published books I read in Spanish or Portuguese haven’t really been edited, it’s seen as a dying art or a luxury in too many parts of the world. The responsibility for editing fell to us, but with it the freedom to be demanding. So too the freedom to tailor the book to an English readership, a rare privilege perhaps, but one to be very wary of, too. The last thing we wanted to do was make Juan Tomás’ work conform to some pre-conceived blueprint of what a book is supposed to be. But in the end, we decided it was plenty wild enough to withstand a couple of tweaks and still be a genuine free-spirited original.
Q: Given that the original book does not exist in a published form, did you change or feel tempted to change the original version in any way during the translation?
JT: No, la manera en que fluye la redacción de los libros me suele hacer creer que no suele haber sentido que algo se eliminara. De hecho, suelen ser libros relativamente delgados, así que no suele haber dónde quitar nada. Y si hubiera querido añadir algo aprovechando que el libro no tenía una versión española, entonces hubiera sido como hacer trampa.
Q: With regards to your identity, do you consider yourself as a translator, an activist, a writer? In fact, the process you describe in your article about the translation of By the Night the Mountain Burns suggests that you consider yourself possibly to be more of a writer than a translator.
JS: I’m a writer, a translator, a journalist, an activist, lots of things. These things all come together in a book like The Gurugu Pledge. Am I more one thing than another? On my income tax form it says translator, so I’d better stick with that, but my skill, or lack thereof, as a writer had a larger bearing on The Gurugu Pledge than any of my other identities.
Q: Equivalency between texts is a debate that has a long turbulent history in theoretical research in academia. Without a source text in the true sense of the word, which text is equivalent to the Gurugu Pledge. Do you believe that equivalence is important? Do you consider that the author and the translator have an equivalent status in this project?
JT: El manuscrito de El Juramento de Gurugú existe, y es un libro escrito en español. Es lo mismo que estuviéramos hablando de la traducción de una edición española. Ahora bien, puede que ahora la edición española fije la fuente, de manera que los otros traductores la tomen como referencia, o prefieran la versión inglesa. Y creo que los dos procesos son válidos, porque cada comunidad de lectores es distinta. La equivalencia entre el autor y el traductor puede establecerse o acercarse, pero siempre depende de la cuán plástico es el texto. Si se diera el caso de que el traductor no pueda adaptar el texto a la segunda lengua, entonces tendría que hacer una mera versión. Hasta ahora, y en los dos libros con los que he trabajado con Jehtro, me reconozco plenamente en mis obras, y pese a que no tenga un inglés bastante alto. Es un mérito de él. JS: It’s literally impossible to rewrite a book word-for-word in a different language, so it’s always about compromises and priorities. As a translator, I prioritise being faithful in spirit rather than to the letter, because I think it’s more important that the English reader has the same overall experience as the Spanish reader, rather than the same experience at the sentence level. If you were to compare the English and Spanish texts now, you’d see what I did as a translator and what we did as editors – and you could even compare it to the French version, which I understand stuck closer to the Spanish structure than we sometimes did
Q: Some postcolonial theorists have criticised translation because it paints and image of a world seen through the eyes of the colonizer. Although the coloniser in this case is not English-speaking, English is a colonising language. What do you think about this in light of the Gurugu Pledge.
JT: Esta cuestión es más larga o complicada. El inglés podría ser colonizadora, pero ahora es una lengua de trabajo, de difusión, de prestigio. Así que podríamos decir que es una lengua colonizadora que está prestando mucho servicio a mucha gente, porque en todo el mundo hay gente que adquiere un nivel social solamente por saber inglés. Entonces podríamos decir que hay mucha gente que quiere ser colonizada, si se puede decir. Por el lado que nos toca, Another Stories no puede plantear esta cuestión, porque se diría que estaría actuando con ventaja, utilizando los beneficios de la colonización, pero no es el caso. JS: I can’t see how translating this book into English can do anything but help foster a better understanding of a post-colonial world. But as an aside, and going back to the point about the different voices, I was very much aware of the linguistic textures and their implications when working on the voices of the book’s African English-speakers, and even the French-speakers who sometimes speak in English in the book too. By making them as authentic as I possibly could, I felt I was showing how the imposed languages had been enriched, reshaped, transformed, overthrown.
The Gurugu Pledge is published by And Other Stories priced at £10 and available at most bookshops.


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